Ottawa·The New Wave

As melt starts, Quinte prepares for a lot of water — and then none

As part of the New Wave water series, here's a look at how one Ontario conservation area is tackling unpredictable water-related weather issues.

How one Ontario conservation authority is tackling unpredictable weather

Christine McClure is Quinte Conservation's water resources manager. She oversees water all year round — from floods to draughts. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

It's spring thaw time and that means Christine McClure can't take holidays. She's got melting snow to track.

All that melt means flooding for Quinte Conservation, where McClure manages water resources. Just how bad this year's flooding will be is anything but predictable. And that's more and more the case, here and elsewhere in Ontario, as extreme weather events occur more frequently.

    "That is one of the increasing challenges," she said. "Localized high intensity rainfall events on small urban watersheds are extremely hard to predict, especially in our watershed."

    McClure is on the front lines of dealing with that new reality. As it is with many other communities, Quinte has dealt with a whole spectrum of extreme weather first-hand. There have been historic floods, ice jams and a slushy-like phenomena called frazil ice. And there have also been droughts.

    She measures conditions, like weather and water flow, to guess how much it will flood. Unpredictable weather has made anticipating what is coming a much trickier proposition.

    Walter Smith inspects his yard in Foxboro, Ont., just north of Belleville, on April 13, 2014. A state of emergency was declared that year because of rising water levels on the Moira River. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

    The area, on the north end of Lake Ontario, is home to the 98 kilometre long Moira River and the Bay of Quinte, directly connected to Lake Ontario. While there may be a lot of water now, Quinte lacks it come the summer.

    "This area is quite vulnerable to drought. It is of concern to both ourselves … but also to the public who relies on a source of water for sanitation and [drinking]," McClure said. "It doesn't just affect people. It affects the ecology as well."

    And while floods happen fast, droughts can last a long time.

    To learn more how conservation authorities are tackling unpredictable weather, tap on the audio player below.

    Adapting in a low-lying area

    A big part of the problem is that Quinte is a low-lying area. One of the hardest hit parts has been the small community of Foxboro, north of Belleville.

    The community is often the first to flood when the spring runoff gets bad. It was home to two substantial floods in 2008 and 2014. McClure explains many of the houses there were built before flood plain regulations, which would protect them from frequent flooding.

    Ice cover remains as the Moira River winds through Foxboro, Ont., in mid-March 2019. McClure doesn't foresee any major flooding this spring but she can't be for certain. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

    "This area has experienced some extreme flooding," she said.

    "There's definitely houses in this area that would be underwater essentially or at least their first floor would be underwater in a 100 year event." 

    The conservation authority is currently working to develop a flood mitigation plan for Foxboro, aimed at reducing the impact and cost of flooding there.

    A house in Tweed, Ont., north of Belleville, sits surrounded by water from the Stoco Lake on April 16, 2014. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

    It's an example of how Quinte has had to adapt. The conservation authority installed ice control structures throughout the mid-20th century, which have helped keep ice jams at bay. 40 dams have also been put up, so water can be held back or left to flow.

    "They're only a piece of the puzzle. They can't solve all of the problems depending on how much water you're dealing with," McClure said.

    'Need to plan for extreme events'

    McClure is hesitant to say how big of a role climate change plays in this — she said she's not a "climate scientist."

    Climate change has led to more extreme weather events though like heavy downpours and freak storms. Those have complicated her work, as much as she may predict or prepare.

    There are rulers which measure the height of the water through Quinte, including the one under this bridge on Potter's Creek. Using past data, the conservation authority knows there is going to be an issue when water reaches a certain height on the ruler. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

    "There have been times when we've issued both a flood outlook statement at the same time we were in low water conditions," she said.

    "Regardless of whether it's climate change or not, we need to plan for extreme events."

    This story is part of The New Wave, a week-long CBC radio and online series focused on those tackling Ontario's water woes. (CBC)

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Haydn Watters is a roving reporter in Ontario, mostly serving the province's local CBC Radio shows. He has worked for the CBC in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and entertainment unit. He ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont. You can get in touch at haydn.watters@cbc.ca.

    Comments

    To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

    By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

    Become a CBC Member

    Join the conversation  Create account

    Already have an account?

    now